Today was the first day in our week of using only a car to transport ourselves around, and with beautiful weather in Olympia created by a savory mix of warm sunshine and cloud free skies, it was the perfect time to jump into a big, hot, nasty ’93 Dodge Grand Caravan to haul myself around. My van, with its many, many miles, multicolored doors, dented roof, rust spots and a few well placed liberal bumper stickers, a vehicle that has done a lot for me and taken me many places, no longer has my eye. When I see it parked in my driveway I think about how nice it will be to rid myself of it and move into my car-free future. I have walked down my street at night and imagined seeing a car thief opening the constantly unlocked door and driving off with it as I continue my leisurely stroll. In fact, I’d probably come out a richer man, as the current offer is a case of beer or a bottle of whisky in exchange for the key. To give you a better a picture, I’ll give you a brief driving history and follow it with my first day experiences.

My driving history started early in my junior year of high school, after I had passed my driver’s test on the second try (I swear it was the classically irritated DMV employee and the confusing course that did me in the first time). Once I had that awesomely freeing piece of plastic stuck firmly in my wallet, I began driving to school almost everyday until I graduated. Like many American teens, my car (van actually), gave me a sense of profound freedom that I can only liken to the boundaries opened up by my bicycle once my training wheels had come off all those years ago. Perhaps I was desperate for another taste of that particular flavor of freedom, one in which the world becomes bigger, where there are new times and places previously thought unattainable for lack of a way of getting to them. In those early years, driving was an activity that had its own merit, something that could be added to the mix of boredom and poor imagination to create something new. I remember on a number of occasions where my group of friends would split up among the few that had a car available to them (the van was unofficially my car) and play hide and go seek. One person would drive their car to a hiding spot and park, call the other cars with their cell phones (another right of passage, but a story for some other time), and give a clue about their location. From that point, the car hiding would wait and the rest would seek. Back then, that was fun. Driving was something new and exciting, but like anything new and exciting, the new becomes old and the exciting becomes mundane.

My attitude about driving has changed quite a bit since then, but I’m not yet where I want to be. After graduating high school and coming out to Evergreen, I did not want a car in college. I felt it was a burden and I didn’t want to be driving places when I had free bus transportation covered by my tuition. My freshman and sophomore year roommates both had cars, which was nice when trying to get around faster than bus, bike or foot. In this way, I indirectly had access to a car as most places my roommates were going I usually was as well. In the 2007-08 school year, I moved in to a place that was not very close to the bus line, and had my van shipped out from Minneapolis. I was hesitant about having my van at school as I liked the independent feeling I got from not having a vehicle to rely on, but in the end I decided to ship it out because it would be convenient in certain situations, especially for basic activities like grocery shopping. I understand the draw to the automobile, the feeling of personal choice and sense of freedom it gives to the driver. And even as I plan my future around not owning a vehicle, I understand that I would have missed out on many experiences had I not had access to one. In planning for a car-free future though, I believe that my travel experiences will be better planned, more thought out and generally more positive, even with all the benefits that a vehicle offers. I believe that those looking toward the future are the one’s starting to  live car-free, setting up their lives around new ways of getting around and thus, following new ways of thinking. This is the type of person I want to become, so my actions will therefore follow along that path.

My morning commute to work at The Evergreen State College (TESC), about 4 miles away from my house located in the Westside of Olympia, started off my driving week. The first thing I noticed about commuting by car instead of by my normal bus trip actually occurred the night before, when I set my alarm about 10 minutes later than I normally do. Because I was not subject to the bus route’s schedule, which could care less if I was at the bus stop on time or not, I was able to follow a morning schedule with a different set of rules. Of course, as I have learned on countless occasions before, things never go according to plan. Sleeping the extra 10 minutes had me waking up at 8:20 AM, getting dressed in my smelly and paint stained work clothes, an outfit that I find myself in too often for my own liking, and heading downstairs. Tick, tick, tick. Morning minutes are the worst, as they seem to be in love with the idea of upward mobility, making a speedy ascension only to run into the ceiling of 59 and sent crashing down to double 0’s at the start of every hour. Following my own time schedule instead of the one mandated by the bus was making me late.

I stepped out the door to a gorgeous warm and sunny morning, almost to my disgust as I knew I’d be spending the next 8 hours inside a room with no windows. I got into my van, slid the key into the ignition and flipped it to hear the familiar noise of that old engine starting up. The tank was just over half full, something of a white lie the van tells me every time I start it, as the trust between the gas meter and myself was the first to go when the van entered its twilight years. The drive was simple enough, quite short and one that I have done many times. I was jealous of the bikers I saw and felt the agitation that would accompany me everywhere I drove today begin to creep in. I have found that I feel most frustrated, claustrophobic and easiest to fall into road rage when the weather outside is nice and I’m stuck inside a car. I arrived behind the apartment complex where I park when I have to drive to school as the street offers free parking. I used to park in one of Evergreen’s lots and take the $10 parking ticket, as I knew I would never have to pay because the parking police had no idea who my  vehicle belonged to. I quickly ran up $100 worth of tickets and after reading the last ticket’s threat of a tire boot, decided to stay clear of the hostile parking area and use the free space that is usually quite crowded with similar thinking individuals and requires a small walk to get to the other side of campus.

After work I drove home, using the same route but this time with a greater sense of angst, as the weather had gotten even better as the day progressed. The van was hot inside and I quickly broke into a sweat. I rolled down the window and cranked the Pearl Jam CD currently serving as my musical selection to help ease my thoughts, something that my bike could have done a much better job of. I stopped home to change clothes and grab something to eat, as I would be out of the house for another couple of hours.

Two nights a week I am a mentor for a young man who is currently incarcerated, and tonight was one of my scheduled nights. The prison is located about 21 miles from house with the drive primarily on the freeway heading south on I-5. I usually carpool with other mentors, but tonight I had to go by myself due to scheduling conflicts. The drive took 23 minutes as I interpreted the 70 mph speed limit liberally, perhaps at times too liberally for the van, as it made protests to slow down by shaking and grunting when reaching speeds of around 80. The drive out to the prison is quite thought provoking to me every time I do it, as I feel it represents many layers surrounding the rationalization and justification of driving. To spend time with this young man, it is almost imperative that I make use of a car. There are just really no other viable options for me. I work three days a week and go to the prison in the evenings, so walking or biking would never really work. The bus system would take a while as well, and wouldn’t get me to the actual prison. My dilemma then, is that in one respect, I am doing something positive by mentoring, but in another respect I am contributing to the very car culture I’m trying to better understand and help create alternatives for. The overall issue that often comes up while driving to and from the prison is how people rationalize and justify where and why they drive. On this occasion, I’m doing something that I feel is a service to the community, and am willing to drive 20+ miles to do it, despite what I know about air pollution, global warming, peak oil and the slew of negatives that come with driving. For others, rationalizing a drive instead of using another method of transportation calls upon  different factors based on their lives and their needs. The point is not to begin blaming each other and pointing fingers, as many of us are guilty of driving places we know we could have gotten to another way or not needed to go to at all. We live in a car culture, where the car is the dominant mode of getting people to places they need or want to go. Although there is plenty of room for people to reanalyze their driving habits and make personal changes in their behavior, at some point a systematic change must be made beyond individual choices to create a new way of living based on something else besides the car.

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